Around ten years old, I started getting debilitating migraines. Awfully early in life to cope with chronic pain. I have experienced a sprained ankle, broken fingers, concussions and back spasms. None of these pains could even be 20% of the pain of a migraine. Migraine pain is what my friend Natalie calls “adult pain”, the kind that should only be reserved for a grown human who has the capacity to find resources for themselves and be in moderate to complete control of their environment. Migraines are not headaches. They are the worst broken bone you’ve ever imagined, but you are also getting punched in the head in a boxing match you are scared to be in and forgot you registered for. And the room you are in is moving like a fast tunnel at a fun house and you need to throw up but it’s not that easy to do because it all hurts and you can’t get up to go to the bathroom because you feel slightly paralyzed or at least like you are having a stroke. And also while you are getting boxed nearly to death, occasionally an iron vice tightens a little more on your head and it makes you sweat, but then the next minute you are shaking from being so cold that ten blankets won’t help. Let’s not forget you also have what feels like food poisoning. But really, it’s worse than that. It’s the worst labor pains you’ve ever had, only it is taking place within your head, the birthplace of all your thoughts and feelings, so you can no longer think clearly, and you can’t see straight.
These are my migraines. Every migraine sufferer has a different story, but I am certain they are all straight out of Hell. Believe them when they tell you. They are not exaggerating. From the time I started getting migraines, I learned quickly that most people get quiet in the face of disability. Migraines are disabling. It’s too hard and too confusing to know what to do for someone, so we default to a silent prairie of no solutions. The suggestions given to most are simply: go to bed, turn out the lights, throw up in this pan beside your bed.
Decades of pain carried me from childhood to adulthood. I accepted this as my destiny. Then one summer, I heard an NPR interview with a doctor who operates a migraine clinic in Baltimore. I listened to it over and over in disbelief, maybe three times in a row. Dr. David Buchholz had studied all these migraine sufferers for three decades. THREE ENTIRE DECADES OF RESEARCH! What have you done consistently for 30 years? This one saint, this human miracle, spent thirty years of his life studying the causes and cures of migraines. He took in all these people and studied them closely, took notes, paid attention, believed them so fully that he made it his life’s work. I then immediately bought his book, How To Heal Your Headache, The 1-2-3 Approach, and began following his suggested protocol, a very strict diet cutting out all coconut, nuts, soy, lima beans, vinegars, cheese, fresh-baked bread, chocolate, bananas and a huge long list of other delicious foods I had been eating every day of my life. I cut them out ALL AT ONCE.
And my migraines got better. Immediately better. Within days of being on this very restrictive diet, I had zero migraines. This, after having 2-3 every week. A few weeks on the diet, still no headaches. Months later, no migraines. On some level, I trusted that it was working but I had to be sure. As a test, I began introducing the trigger foods back into my diet one by one. Within 24 hours of each attempt, I got a migraine. I tried chocolate. I tried almonds. I tried bananas. I ended up with a migraine after each attempt. And now, it’s ten years of being nearly migraine-free because I stick strictly to this diet. No, it is not only food that causes migraine. There is heat and exertion and smells and stress and barometric pressure. I have found that I also need to get enough sleep and stay away from paint fumes, chemicals, air fresheners and perfumes. These odors can cause immediate headaches. But much of the simple cure is food avoidance.
My life is better. Hugely better. I found more time to create art and travel with ease because I am not consumed with debilitating pain a huge part of every day. I rarely have to call in sick to work or cancel plans because of pain. I do oftentimes wish I did not have to explain my food situation when I am invited to someone’s house for dinner. And I beg to never have to hear ‘”you sure are sensitive” ever again. But what makes it bearable are the friends who ask for my list of migraine triggers before they invite me over and the friends who stick up for me when people roll their eyes at my diet. There is a special spot reserved in my heart for the friend who sent me Joan Didion’s essay about migraines.
There is a list of migraine trigger foods below. Depending on how severe your migraines are, you may be able to simply cut down on the amount of these foods you eat. My most solid recommendation is to read How To Heal Your Headache, The 1-2-3 Approach because it explains what a migraine is and validates for you that the special Hell you go through is very real. Occasionally just to feel normal, I will go outside of the boundaries of the diet and eat some Chinese take-out, peanut butter or vinegary salad dressing and I expect to get at least a bad headache. Over time, I have developed an arsenal of tactics to rid myself of the pain as quickly as possible. I will share these in case you or a loved one suffers from migraines. My only hope is that this helps someone somewhere. Thanks for reading.
WHAT TO DO AT THE FIRST SIGNS OF A HEADACHE OR MIGRAINE:
-Take two droppers full of skullcap tincture.
-Drink a quarter cup of coffee.
-Drink a strong cup of chamomile and mint tea.
-Apply Ultra Strength Tiger Balm or peppermint essential oil to your head and neck.
-Chew on strong peppermint or cinnamon gum.
WHAT TO DO IF THE ABOVE DOES NOT WORK:
-Take 2 ibuprofin every 4 hours with plain crackers.
-Call in sick to everything.
-Drink a glass of cold, plain seltzer.
-Put ice packs on your head and neck and lie down.
-Take Dramamine or another anti-nausea medicine.
-Take 2 peppermint capsules or drink 6 drops of peppermint oil in water.
FOODS/MIGRAINE TRIGGERS TO AVOID:
- Cheese: avoid all cheeses except American, cream and cottage cheese.
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG): Chinese/Indian/Thai restaurants; Accent, Adobo and other seasoning products; MSG may be labeled as hydrolyzed vegetable/soy/plant protein.
- Cans, boxes or cartons of broth--most have yeast, onion, mushrooms or MSG.
- Certain dairy products: avoid yogurt, sour cream and buttermilk.
- Meats: avoid aged, canned, cured, marinated, tenderized or those containing nitrates or nitrites: hot dogs, bacon, salami, bologna. Avoid wild game.
- Certain fruits and juices: avoid pineapples, raw tomatoes, coconut, bananas, raisins, craisins, dried fruits, red plums, canned figs, passion fruit, avocados and citrus peels.
- Vegetables: avoid lima, fava, lentil and navy beans; pea pods, tomatoes, sauerkraut and onions.
- Bread products: avoid bread products less than one day old.
- Aspartame (Nutrasweet)
- Artificial colors
- Nitrates & Sulfites
- “Natural Flavors”
- Nutritional Yeast
- Fermented Foods
- Soy: Tofu, Veganaise, Tempeh, Miso
- Alcohol (especially wine)
- Magnesium Supplements
- Flavored seltzers
- Oils: coconut, walnut, peanut, soybean
SOME FOODS THAT ARE OK TO EAT: pine nuts, salad, almost all vegetables, rice, pasta, seeds, beans, corn, free-range organic meat, potatoes, scallions, garlic, leeks, almost all fruits, sunflower butter, carob, oats, squash, butter, peas, milk, cream cheese, ginger and chick peas. As an excellent migraine preventative, take evening primrose oil every day.